From the CD-ROM "Concepts and strategies"


An organic intelligence system

by Peter Small


Note: this is a continuation from the link 'Using a virtual cafe'.

In thinking about the progression of ideas as a book passes from chapter to chapter, it easy to think of the evolution taking place at the level of the book content. These evolutionary changes are obvious for all to see. However, as far as the authoring is concerned, there is another, more important place where evolution takes place: in the cafe. The content is being driven by the readers in the cafe, if this cafe can be made to evolve, it can become progressively more efficient at guiding and influencing the content.

This can be compared to the evolution of humans. It is common to think of human evolution as taking place at the physically observable level: shape, size and form. In fact, evolution takes place at a much lower level of organisation: the genes. Although the physical form may be constantly changing and adapting to an environment it is the genes that are being selectively reconfigured. Figure 5 illustrates the biological equivalents of the cafe, the table and the people at the tables.

Figure 5

Figure 5 - The biological equivalents of the cafe and its constituent parts. It can be likened to an organism that has six cells, each cell having eight active genes

The author's guidance system – the cafe – can thus be viewed as an organism and the responses from this system being a result of its gene activity. Just like any organism, the responses and behaviour can be varied by varying the genes. In other words, an author can control the system that is guiding the writing of the book by reconfiguring the people at the tables in the cafe.

Here we come to the very essence of the theory of evolution – and also the fundamental basis of evolutionary design strategies. An organism proceeds from one generation to the next by preferential selection and reorganisation of its genes. Genes and gene arrangements that perform well in one generation are selected to go forward to the next. Those that perform badly are not carried through to the next generation.

This means there is a very simple, single heuristic rule that drives the evolution of the stem. It is applied to every gene and gene combination in a generation: survive and breed lets you stay in, if you don't you go out.

The cafe can be arranged to evolve towards more efficient operation using exactly this same principle. In this case though, the heuristic rule that is applied doesn't relate to survival and reproduction: it relates to how well genes perform as an intelligent source of author guidance: guide well and you go through to the next generation, if you don't you go out. The difference is that in biological evolution the selection is automatic; in the cafe´ it will need human intervention.

Reconfiguring the cafe

In a genetically evolving cafe´, selection and rearrangement of people at the tables has to be arranged through heuristic rules. These are rules of thumb: rough and ready rules that really amount to no more than the application of common sense.

The most obvious first rule is that people not commenting on the chapter contents are evolved out. It makes no sense to keep them in because they would be reducing the efficiency of the cafe´ to provide guidance. They are removed after two or three chapters of failing to respond, so that they can be replaced by others.

The second common sense rule is that people who respond well to each other's comments should be kept together. This involves organising the arrangement of the table in groups of people rather than on an individual basis.

The third rule concerns the organisation of the cafe´ as a whole. It doesn't make sense to have all the tables in a cafe reacting in the same way, anymore more than it makes sense for all cells in a biological organism to function identically. For greater efficiency, it is be far better for tables to be arranged to specialise, functioning to complement each other.

This can be arranged by designating tables to play particular roles in the guidance system and selecting appropriate people to sit at those tables. For example, one table can contain people who concentrate on feedback while others tables contain people whose responses are more in the nature of feed forward. Some tables can specialise in being critical, others in being enthusiastic. There are a number of different ways in which the appropriate mix of people can affect the way in which a table responds to chapter content.

The fourth rule is to put negative first responders at the same table – because some people have a natural tendency to respond quickly with a negative view point. This is often because they skim too rapidly through the content and take things out of context. After running many generations of these tables, I've discovered that the mood and opinions of tables are disproportionally influenced by first responses. If the first response is negative, it can inhibit responses that are valuable for feed forward.

It is an often observed characteristic of groups that they are easily influenced into a common mind set. There is an experiment, often mentioned in psychology, that demonstrates this phenomenon. It revolves around an optical illusion that a single stationary spot of light in a darkened room can appear to move. If a group is sent into a room and asked to determine whether or not the spot is moving, the group nearly always decides it is or it isn't according to the first opinion voiced.

This leads to a fifth rule that runs counter to some of the other rules: keep changing around the people at the tables so that a common mind set doesn't become fixed. Unlike the situation in conventional organisational structures, the tendency for a group to form a common mind set is not beneficial in discussions involving unknowns and uncertainties. It is just as easy for a group to agree upon a wrong conclusion as a right conclusion. Such agreements form early in discussions and often inhibit views that might look at other view points.

Changing people around at each new chapter, can also counter bias. For instance, discussions at two tables might come to totally different conclusions due the the bias of some of the early discussion leaders. In the following chapter (where probably both view points have been taken into account), people are switched between the tables. This has the effect of keeping everyone fairly open minded because they are continuously being exposed to different perspectives.

This is how an evolutionary strategy can help anyone to write a book. Although it is written by the author, the writing can be guided and kept on course by people in a virtual cafe´. They have access to hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people's views through their personal world of contacts.